"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play…it is war minus the shooting."
For the Glory
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(The life of Eric Liddell), Duncan Hamilton, London, Doubleday, 2016. ISBN 9780857522597It is 92 years since Eric Liddell won his gold medal in the 400 metres at Paris Olympics. It is 35 years since the iconic film, Chariots of Fire brought the story of the athlete who sacrificed his chance to run in his best event in the Olympics because he would not run on Sunday, to public notice. Yet the interest in Eric Liddell remains sufficient for another major book to be published about him. This is the eleventh book about Liddell that I have reviewed for my website – the others were published from 1945 to 2001.
The book is meticulously researched with 30 pages of notes and sources given. The author states that he travelled 20,000 miles in researching the story. An epilogue to the book draws heavily on his conversations with Eric’s daughters.
The book is excellent in its treatment of Liddell’s athletics career leading up to Paris and also authoritative about Eric’s attitude to his participation in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics. It also describes, in more detail than I can recall elsewhere, the races which took place in the prison camp. In the following phrase the book seems to sum up the essence of Liddell the athlete: “In the dash to the tape, however, Liddell suspended friendship. He was fearsomely focused, the empathy he instinctively felt for others never slacking his desire to beat them”. My only quibble would be with the assertion that the crowd in the Stade Colombes gave Liddell the longest and loudest ovation of the Games because the “sacrificial romance” attached to his victory. I wonder how many of the French crowd would have had any idea about the background.
The book is also excellent on Eric’s time in China, giving extensive detail of the period in the prison camp, drawing on interviews and printed material from others who were there with him. The discussion of the influence of DP Thompson on Liddell and the context of Liddell’s refusal to run on Sunday are also well set out.
The weakest part of the book is that author seems not really to understand Eric Liddell’s Christian faith. The book says: “Unlike other preachers, he was convinced that ‘no amount’ of churchgoing could turn anyone into a true Christian. ‘Only intimate contact with God through Jesus,’ he said, could achieve that. He described it as a ‘free gift’ from Him”. Rather than driving a wedge between Liddell and other preachers, that Liddell said that a person only became a Christian through believing in Jesus shows that his theology was totally Biblical and mainstream. That book uses phrases like “committed Christian”, “devout Christian”, “found religion” “Liddell had become a public speaker for God”, “Liddell’s religious beliefs”, “religious zeal alone didn’t qualify you to be a missionary,” that Liddell preached about “scripture, temperance, morality and Sunday observance” and “He didn’t want to be seen only as a do-gooder, who dispensed the scriptures”. I would suggest that an author with a better understanding of Christianity would have used quite different language. Again the book states that: “The Sermon on the Mount remained the keystone of his [Liddell’s] faith”. I suspect that had Eric been asked he would have said that the death of Jesus to reconcile him with God was the keystone of his faith”. The death of Jesus not his teaching is the essence of Christianity.
I also wonder whether the book’s scathing assessment of the London Missionary Society would in any way whatsoever have resonated with Eric Liddell. The book makes the following comments about the LMS: “The LMS turned the screw on Liddell in an un-Christian manner. Its executive committee traded on both his conscience and his obligations to God”. “The LMS was peeved… and then gerrymandered the outcome it wanted”. “In a disgraceful act at the eleventh hour, the London Missionary Society, as if possessing the moral right to assert control over Florence…”
The book well sums up the man in this tribute: “The Olympic champion who abandoned the track for the sake of his religious calling in China. The husband who booked boat passages for his pregnant wife and two infant daughters to enable them to escape the torment he was enduring in Weihsien. The father who had never met his third child, born without him at her bedside. The friend and colleague, so humbly modest, who treated everyone equally”.
This is a must-read book for anyone who is interested in the life of a great pioneer of faith and sport.
PS One small point. The book refers to the story of Forrest Smithson running in the 1908 with a Bible in his left hand to demonstrate his faith in God. While I am well aware of the tale, I have never been able to find any contemporary confirmation that it actually happened.